Given the disastrous national election, East Bay activists have no choice but to grapple with a number of important issues. Perhaps the most important initial challenge, though, will be how progressives reconcile what Donald Trump’s win revealed about the relationship between class, race, and culture.
So far, liberal voices are emphasizing — and blaming — our differences, which has sparked a precarious “Us vs. Them” debate among the 99 Percent here in the East Bay and across the nation.
Battle lines are being drawn: between those who say Trump’s win was about economics, and those who say it was about racial and cultural intolerance among white voters.
Consider last week’s much-discussed New York Times article by Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, titled “The End of Identity Liberalism.” He skewered what he saw as the predominance of identity politics in the Hillary Clinton campaign, saying it arose from a “generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.”
Lilla also argued that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
And Saturday Night Live comedian Colin Jost recently told this joke: “The dating app Tinder announced a new feature this week, which gives users 37 different gender-identity options. … It’s called ‘Why Democrats Lost The Election.'”
But here in the Bay Area — once home of a powerful blue-collar labor movement and now the center of a potent identity movement — Lilla’s argument against identity politics has been met with derision.
UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-López, who has written extensively, and usefully, on racial coding in political appeals, wrote on his website that he was “more troubled by the Democratic response to Trump’s victory than the election itself.” He rejected a progressive-class explanation for Clinton’s defeat, arguing that, when one says “class” today, it means the interests of white workers. And many in that white working-class voted for Trump. “Class politics is identity politics — it’s just a very dangerous version of it,” he wrote.
Helpfully, most debaters agree that it is risky to emphasize the distinctions in the 99 Percent. When we make differences primary, people without power are not going to progress, and the dominance of the One Percent will persevere.
Class and identity are complicated, multi-layered concepts that deserve our careful attention today. Importantly, as Bill Fletcher Jr., author and activist on issues of the intersection of race and class, told the Express this past week, “class is about power and identity is about recognition. Both are important.”
Like race and culture, class truly matters. All workers are suffering today, including the white-working-class. To refuse to recognize this, or to claim they “have it coming to them,” is not only a cruel response, but also one that is sure to create more Trumps in the future.
For instance, white-working-class men and women have seen an increase in poverty and a decline in their life expectancy. Anyone who sees the quality of life decline for their loved will surely be irritated. A deep fear exists among those who are being left behind economically. If the left dismisses their suffering, they’re going to flee — just like how once Barack Obama voters abandoned Clinton.
At the same time, class issues cannot be successfully addressed without a full-throated attack on racism, no matter its genesis. All too frequent racist responses by white workers to their predicament makes working-class unity problematic.
Unfortunately, embattled established U.S. unions have offered precious little leadership as to a way forward. And, the shiniest new prescription for struggling workers is a philanthropic labor movement that glorifies the “sharing economy.” Financed by wealthy foundations, these new labor leaders attack “collective” bargaining and, instead, argue for an “individualistic” freedom. But clearly workers don’t buy it. With this approach, working-class unity — and the ability to be a counterweight to Trump and Wall Street — will be even more difficult to muster. Much more work is needed here.
That said, like the class advocates, identity first-believers have some work to do, as well. Respect for different cultures and lifestyles has advanced in recent decades. We have often written in the Express of the wondrous beauty that arises when people can publicly express their love for each other, and of the kaleidoscopic diversity that is found in the East Bay. But now, many who are not white and straight are worried that their newfound freedoms will be lost under a Trump administration.
At the same time, in the rarefied air of the Bay Area only a thin understanding of the travails of working-class Americans, white or non-white, exists today.
And sharp differences endure within the identity movement. One can’t forget that economic inequality exists within racial groups, and that experiences and struggles vary. To name just one example, discrimination faced by Hispanic people in the Bay Area is quite different than that experienced by the transgender community. Solidarity is also often fragile. Many African-American religious leaders still condemn gay marriage, and gay activists note that racism exists in their community. And, the election showed that unity among women, as women, is in short supply.
In general, though, those who advocate for recognition of and respect for diversity work hard to minimize differences and maximize solidarity. Most see a compassion for those who suffer, no matter their color or gender.
We all need to feel safe and we all need to know that, if we work hard, we can provide for ourselves and our loved ones. The only way forward is through a solidarity of the non-elite. It must be a solidarity for a common good, not of “my identity against yours.” To do this, there must be compassion for all who suffer. The East Bay can lead the way.